Readings from the 40 + 1

    A Presidents Dream
    by Carol Welsh (Honduras 1962–64)

    WHILE I WAS IN COLLEGE, I wrote a small research paper on “The Youth Corps,” which eventually was named the Peace Corps. I was excited about the idea of being able to represent America in a foreign country not as an “Ugly American,” but as one who lived at their level. President Kennedy stirred my heart and resolve as he made the Peace Corps into a reality.

    The day camp
    I left for Honduras on October 1, 1962. Our group consisted of nurses and social workers. As a social group worker, I was assigned to a community center to help develop programs and activities. The first winter I discovered that the schools closed for 8 weeks over the winter months rather than during the hot, steamy summer months. That’s when the idea began to emerge to have an 8-week day camp program for the next winter. My Honduran supervisor, Blanca Estela, liked the idea but was pessimistic because of a lack of funds.
         “We could have a fund raising carnival,” I suggested. I explained that we could go to all of the businesses in San Pedro Sula and ask for a donation of one of their products that could be used for the prizes. The idea caught on and off we went. I was amazed at the generosity of the business community and merchants. Blanca teased that the people were so fascinated by this tall blonde gringa who spoke Spanish with a Wisconsin accent that they just couldn’t refuse our request.
         We ended up with a room full of wonderful prizes and some gifts that were so outstanding that they were saved for a raffle. But now for the rest of the story.
    The carnival was planned for November 26, 1963. But four days before, our world turned upside down. Another Peace Corps Volunteer and I were living with a widow and her three children. The widow also had a 13-year-old girl living with her who worked for room and board. On the Friday before the carnival, while we were eating lunch, the girl came bursting in the door babbling “asesinato – presidente.” She was laughing hysterically. Historically, military coups in Latin American countries where the president is assassinated were not uncommon. I felt terrible because the Honduran President and First Lady had invited us to Honduras to help staff the new health and community centers they had established around the country. The Hondurans loved them so I was puzzled by his assassination.
         The widow went up to the girl and slapped her hard to stop the hysteria. I was shocked until I heard her scream, “How can you laugh over President Kennedy’s assassination? How dare you insult these people by behaving in such a manner!” The girl began to sob.
         No! This can’t be true! This doesn’t happen in America, my mind screamed! Two other Volunteers burst into the house, crying. I turned numb. As I rode in the Jeep back to the Community Center, I wept quietly for a few minutes. The Center’s staff was wailing loudly when I got there. They have strong customs for grieving, including showing a great deal of emotion and rules of what you can and cannot wear. (Everyone knew the woman of our house was a widow because she could only wear black and white for the rest of her life.)
         Many of the Hondurans idolized the Kennedys and had pictures of them in their homes or shops. To show respect for President Kennedy, they felt they must cancel the carnival. How can we do something that is joyous and fun at a time like this? When I explained that the Peace Corps was a dream come true for President Kennedy and that the biggest honor we could bestow upon him was to go ahead with the carnival, they decided not to cancel it.
         $300 in nickels was made from that carnival along with another $150 from the raffle. This paid for the first 8-week day camp in the history of the country. Both children and adults participated. However, the monies earned from the carnival proved to be even more crucial.
         Two weeks after President Kennedy’s assassination, there was a military coup in Honduras and the President and his wife were exiled. The person who was going to be elected as the next president because the current President’s term was ending, was crazy — or so the people proclaimed. He would get on the radio and talk non-stop for 6 hours! The people were afraid that he would be another Castro. The opposition party could not win because then everyone who had a government job — the only good and secure jobs — would lose their jobs.
         By having a rapid coup with little blood shed, the military believed they were rescuing the situation. However, this immediately cut off the funds to the health and community centers since they were government owned. The money from the carnival helped to keep the center open for two months until the funds were restored.
         During a visit to Honduras, Sargent Shriver assured us that this news would have gladdened President Kennedy’s heart, had he been alive. Shriver stopped at the Center and shared this with the people. Some wept, others beamed proudly.

    (Twenty-five years later, our Honduras I group had a reunion up in the mountains of Mexico where our Peace Corps Director for Honduras now had a home. As we were shopping in the tiny little tiendas, we all stopped and looked. There was a big faded photo of Jack and Jackie Kennedy proudly displayed in the back of the shop with a black ribbon framing their photos. The memory was still carried in the hearts of some. And I have the memory of the happy faces during the day camp activities.)

    Bridge building
    The military stayed in power in Honduras for decades.
         Right after the coup they began to approach Peace Corps Volunteers to see if they could work with them. They knew the Volunteers were liked and respected even though the people were often curious as to why we were there. I was asked frequently as to why in the world I would want to come to Honduras? Their theory was we had everything in the United States and they were poor. Many thought everyone in the United States was rich. At least that’s the way they saw us in the movies.
         Out in one of the rural barrios, one Volunteer was helping the people build a wooden bridge so that they could still get their sugar cane to the market during the rainy season. The military thought this was a wonderful way to win favor with the people. “We will build the bridge for them,” they proclaimed. The Volunteer was able to show them that by helping the people to build the bridge themselves rather than doing it for them, they would be able to build future bridges by themselves. We have photos of the village people, the military and the volunteer standing proudly on the completed bridge.

    A new water supply
    Next the people wanted a water spigot in their village so the women wouldn’t have to haul the water all of the way from the river. The military eagerly said they would get the equipment and dig the trench so the village people could have the water. Once again, the Peace Corps Volunteer showed them the pride the villagers were feeling as they saw the spigot getting closer and closer.
         The villagers held little fund raising parties, mostly selling warm beer. When they had the money to buy a length of pipe, they would celebrate with another fund raising party and make a big fuss over how much closer they were to their goal. They didn’t dig a trench. They just laid the pipe with great pride on the ground. Then they would step back and see how far they had already come. By the time our two year tour of duty was complete, the spigot was in the middle of their village and more photos had been taken.

    The next project was to build outhouses so the villagers no longer would have to use the bushes. This time the military supplied shovels and lumber at a reduced price. They didn’t try to do the digging for them. They finally understood the concept of community development, “Feed them fish and they will be hungry the next day. Show them how to fish, and they will never be hungry again.”

    The Peace Corps has been in Honduras since 1962 when we arrived and the locals wondered who we were? Missionaries? Peace Corps — Cuerpo de Paz? Peace group? What does that mean? And who were these Norte Americanos who were always broke? They walked or drove Jeeps, not those big American cars that could barely negotiate the narrow streets.
         Now they know.
         Now they know we are people who care, people who laugh with them and speak their language. People who are fulfilling a dream that started with a President’s Dream — send our best to these developing countries. Were we the best? I don’t know. Each of us had our own reasons for joining the Peace Corps. My experience changed my life forever. I thank my lucky stars for being an American. How good we have it. We are the envy of the world. Freedom. I will never ever take it for granted again.

    Carol Welsh is the author of When You’re Seeing Red…STOP! and the forthcoming Push Here to Start: A Practical Approach for Diffusing Hot Buttons.